We have been in general much gratified, and often highly delighted, during our perusal of this volume, which contains, besides the two first cantos of the "Pilgrimage," and the notes by which they are accompanied, a few smaller poems of considerable merit; together with an Appendix, communicating a good deal of curious information concerning the present state of literature and language in modern Greece. The principal poem is styled "A Romaunt;" an appellation, perhaps, rather too quaint, but which, inasmuch as it has been always used with a considerable latitude of meaning, and may be considered as applicable to all the anomalous and non-descript classes of poetical composition, is not less suited than any other title to designate the metrical itinerary which we are about to examine.
"The scenes attempted to be sketched," says Lord Byron in his preface, "are in Spain, Portugal, Epirus, Acarnania, and Greece. Here, for the present, the poem stops; its reception will determine whether the author may venture to conduct his readers to the capital of the east, through Ionia and Phrygia. These two cantos are merely experimental. A fictitious character is introduced for the sake of giving some connection to the piece; which, however, makes no pretension to regularity. It has been suggested to me by friends on whose opinions I set a high value, that in this fictitious character, 'Childe Harold,' I may incur the suspicion of having intended some real personage; this I beg leave, once for all, to disclaim. Harold is the child of imagination, for the purpose I have stated."
After the usual invocation to the muse, the supposed traveller is thus introduced to our acquaintance.
Whilome in Albion's isle there dwelt a youth
Who ne in virtue's ways did take delight,
But spent his days in riot most uncouth;
And vex'd with mirth the drowsy ear of Night.
Ah me! in sooth he was a shameless wight,
Sore given to revel and ungodly glee;
Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.
Childe Harold was he hight: — but whence his name
And lineage long, it suits me not to say;
Suffice it, that perchance they were of fame,
And had been glorious in another day:
But one sad losel soils a name for aye,
However mighty in the olden time,
Nor all that heralds rake from coffin'd clay,
Nor florid prose, nor honied lies of rhyme,
Can blazon evil deeds, or consecrate a crime.
This description is continued through eight more stanzas, for the purpose of exhibiting, at full length, this singular child of profligacy, who is "drugged with pleasure," and driven, at once by the "fulness of satiety," and by the pangs of unrequited passion, to seek relief from the intolerable tediousness and monotony of life, in voluntry exile. To quit the companions of his debaucheries required. little effort; but he quitted with the same abruptness a mother and a sister, for whom he felt a sincere affection.
Yet deem not thence his breast a breast of steel;
Ye, who have known what 'tis to dote upon
A few dear objects, will in sadness feel
Such partings break the heart they fondly hope to heal.
These lines will probably, recal to the memory of our readers the pathetic passage in Virgil where Euryalus makes mention of his mother.
Hanc ego nunc ignaram hujus quodcunque pericli est,
Inque salutatam linquo: nox, et tua testis
Dextera, quod nequeam lacrymas perferre parentis.
Childe Harold now embarks; and having soon lost sight of land, seizes his harp, and composes a lay of "Good Night" to his native country. On the fifth day he reaches the mouth of the Tagus, and the city of Lisbon, whose "image floating on that noble tide which poets vainly pave with sands of gold," inspires him with delight, nearly equal to the disgust with which he afterwards contemplated the filth of its interior, and the character of its inhabitants; then degraded by a weak government, and evincing no symptoms of that noble energy, by which they have latterly been distinguished. But it is the "glorious Eden" of Cintra which calls forth his warmest admiration.
The horrid crags, by toppling convent crown'd,
The cork-trees hoar that clothe the shaggy steep,
The mountain moss by scorching skies imbrown'd,
The sunken glen, whose sunless shrubs must weep,
The tender azure of the unruffled deep,
The orange tints that gild the greenest bough,
The torrents that from cliff to valley leap,
The vine on high, the willow branch below,
Mixed in one mighty scene, with varied beauty glow.
The buildings that add splendour to this sylvan scenery are next described; and Childe Harold, like Voltaire's Pococurante, is often disposed to be sarcastic, takes care to remind us of the celebrated Cintra convention, and ascribes to a wicked fiend, inhabiting the castle of Marialva, the absurdities of that martial synod, who were so eager to throw away their hard-earned laurels for the purpose of hooding themselves in the "fool's cap" of diplomacy.
After casting one look at the palace of Mafra, the restless Harold proceeds in his devious wanderings.
Though sluggards deem it but a foolish chace,
And marvel men should quit their easy chair,
The toilsome way, and long, long league to trace;
Oh! there is sweetness in the mountain air,
And life, that bloated Ease can never hope to share!
In passing from the Portugueze to the Spanish territory, he is somewhat disappointed, by the smallness of the stream which forms the boundary between two nations, so long disunited by their reciprocal animosity.
But ere the mingling bounds have far been pass'd,
Dark Guadiana rolls his power along
In sullen billows, murmuring and vast,
So noted ancient roundelays among.
Whilome upon his banks did legions throng
Of Moor and knight, in mailed splendour drest;
Here ceas'd the swift their race, here sunk the strong;
The Paynim turban and the Christian crest
Mix'd on the bleeding stream, by floating hosts oppress'd.
Oh, lovely Spain! renowned, romantic land!
Where is that standard which Pelagio bore,
When Cava's traitor-sire first call'd the band
That dy'd thy mountain streams with Gothic gore?
Where are those bloody Banners which of yore
Wav'd o'er thy sons, victorious to the gale,
And drove at last the spoilers to their shore?
Red gleam'd the cross, and waned the crescent pale,
While Afric's echoes thrill'd with Moorish matrons' wail.
Teems not each ditty with the glorious tale?
Ah! such, alas! the hero's amplest fate!
When granite moulders and when records fail,
A peasant's plaint prolongs his dubious date.
Pride! bend thine eye from heaven to thine estate,
See how the Mighty shrink into a song!
Can Volume, Pillar, Pile preserve thee great?
Or must thou trust Tradition's simple tongue,
When Flattery sleeps with thee, and History does thee wrong?
Awake, ye Sons of Spain! awake! advance!
Lo! Chivalry, your ancient goddess, cries,
But wields not, as of old, her thirsty lance,
Nor shakes her crimson plumage in the skies:
Now on the smoke of blazing bolts she flies,
And speaks in thunder through yon engine's roar:
In every peal she calls — "Awake! arise!"
Say, is her voice more feeble than of yore,
When her war-song was heard on Andalusia's shore?
These animated lines, and a most terrific description of the genius of battle which follows them, are naturally dictated by the arrival of the traveller at the camp of the allies, on the morning of the battle of Talavera; and he pays a willing tribute of praise to the splendid and orderly array of the contending armies; but in his reflections on these sanguinary contests, the libertine Childe appears to be a true disciple of Falstaff; and speeds to Seville, where he finds the inhabitants rioting in pleasure, with as much security, as if the defeat of Dupont's army had crippled the French power, and rendered the Morena impervious to future invasion. At Seville he beholds the illustrious maid of Saragoza. It certainly is one of the miracles produced by the Spanish revolution, that
She whom once the semblance of a scar
Appall'd, an owlet's larum chill'd with dread,
Now views the column-scattering bay'net jar,
The falchion flash, and o'er the yet warm dead
Stalks with Minerva's step where Mars might quake to tread:
and the miracle is, in this case, rendered much more impressive by the personal charms of the heroine. Childe Harold therefore surveys, with much complacency, her fairy form — her graceful step — her dazzling black eyes, and glowing complection; but having no predilection for Amazon beauties, is anxious to exculpate this paragon of Spain, as well as her countrywomen, from any deficiency in the "witching arts of love," observing that when they mix in the ruder scenes of war,
'Tis but the tender fierceness of the dove
Pecking the hand that hovers o'er her mate.
The fascinations of young females are, naturally enough, the favourite theme of young poets; but the minstrel of Childe Harold, aware that some of his readers may possibly be older than himself, has very judiciously suspended his description of the "dark glancing daughters" of Andalusia, for the purpose of saying a few words to Mount Parnassus, at whose foot (as we learn from a note at the bottom of the page) he was actually writing, and whom he consequently addressed as seen,
Not in the fabled landscape of a lay,
But soaring snow-clad through thy native sky,
In the wild pomp of mountain majesty!
Happier in this than mightiest bards have been,
Whose rate to distant homes confin'd their lot,
Shall I unmov'd behold the hallow'd scene,
Which others rave of, though they know it not?
Though here no more Apollo haunts his grot,
And thou, the Muses' seat, art now their grave!
Some gentle Spirit still pervades the spot,
Sighs in the gale, keeps silence in the cave,
And glides with glassy foot o'er yon melodious wave.
Of thee hereafter. — Ev'n amidst my strain
I turn'd aside to pay my homage here;
Forgot the land, the sons, the maids of Spain;
Her fate, to every freeborn bosom dear;
And hail'd thee, not perchance without a tear.
Now to my theme — but from thy holy haunt
Let me some remnant, some memorial bear;
Yield me one leaf of Daphne's deathless plant,
Nor let thy votary's hope be deem'd an idle vaunt.
But ne'er didst thou, fair Mount! when Greece was young,
See round thy giant base a brighter choir,
Nor e'er did Delphi, when her priestess sung
The Pythian hymn with more than mortal fire,
Behold a train more fitting to inspire
The song of love, than Andalusia's maids,
Nurst in the glowing lap of soft desire:—
Ah! that to these were given such peaceful shades
As Greece can still bestow, though Glory fly her glades.
It is impossible not to join in the prayers of the last couplet, if it be true, as the poet proceeds to assure us, that Venus, since the decay of her Paphian temple, has taken possession of the city of Cadiz, where her votaries are at present very ill provided with those "peaceful shades" which they would find by emigrating into Greece. They, therefore, amuse themselves as well as they can, with processions, and with bull-feasts, (in the poetical description of which we have found more pleasure than we probably should have experienced in contemplating the reality;) and they had the good fortune to find favour in the eyes of Childe Harold, who, though "pleasure's palled victim," on whose "faded brow" was written, "cursed Cain's unresting doom," was induced to "pour forth an unpremeditated lay," of some length, in honour of a certain bewitching Inez. He then prepares to embark at Cadiz, and bids adieu to, his favourite city, where
—all were noble, save Nobility;
None hugg'd a Conqueror's chain, save fallen Chivalry!
Such be the sons of Spain, and strange her fate!
They fight for freedom who were never free;
A Kingless people for a nerveless state;
Her vassals combat when their chieftains flee,
True to the veriest slaves of Treachery:
Fond of a land which gave them nought but life,
Pride points the path that leads to Liberty;
Back to the struggle, baffled in the strife,
War, war is still the cry, "War even to the knife!"
The same train of reflections is pursued through a few more stanzas, and the first canto closes with a pathetic address to a young military friend, whose death was occasioned by a fever at Coimbra.
At the commencement of the second Canto, we find the following apostrophe, to the ruins of Athens:
Ancient of days! august Athena! where,
Where are thy men of might? thy grand in soul?
Gone — glimmering through the dream of things that were,
First in the race that led to Glory's goal,
They won, and pass'd away — is this the whole?
A school-boy's tale, the wonder of an hour!
The warrior's weapon and the sophist's stole
Are sought in vain, and o'er each mouldering tower,
Dim with the mist of years, grey flits the shade of power. — p. 62.
The poet is thus naturally led into a long train of reflections on the decay to which the noblest works of human industry and genius, are necessarily exposed; and on the blindness, the arrogance, the perversity of conquerors, who so often anticipate the ravages of time, and doom these monuments to premature destruction. He then inveighs, with great vehemence, against the whole tribe of collectors, who having purchased from the stupid and sordid officers of the Turkish government, a general right of devastation, have proceeded to deface, and are daily defacing, the beautiful specimens of Grecian architecture, by removing and carrying off the bas-reliefs and other ornaments, from the ruined temples of Athens. Amongst these minor plunderers, the most prominent object of the poet's sarcasms, is Lord Elgin, who is very plainly designated in the text, and actually named in the notes; and it is only when the shafts of his ridicule are exhausted, that Lord Byron is at leisure to think of his imaginary pilgrim, who had embarked at Cadiz on board of a frigate, and whose voyage is described in the following spirited and beautiful stanzas.
He that has sail'd upon the dark blue sea
Has view'd at times, I ween, a full fair sight;
When the fresh breeze is fair as breeze may be,
The white sail set, the gallant Frigate tight;
Masts, spires, and strand retiring to the right,
The glorious Main expanding o'er the bow,
The convoy spread like wild swans in their flight,
The dullest sailer wearing bravely now,
So gaily curl the waves before each dashing prow.
And oh, the little warlike world within!
The well-reev'd guns, the netted canopy,
The hoarse command, the busy humming din,
When, at a word, the tops are mann'd on high:
Hark, to the Boatswain's call, the cheering cry!
While through the seaman's hand the tackle glides;
Or school-boy Midshipman that, standing by,
Strains his shrill pipe as good or ill betides,
And well the docile crew that skilful urchin guides.
White is the glassy deck, without a stain,
Where on the watch the staid Lieutenant walks:
Look on that part which sacred doth remain
For the lone chieftain, who majestic stalks,
Silent and fear'd by all — not oft he talks
With aught beneath him, if he would preserve
That strict restraint, which broken, ever balks
Conquest and Fame: but Britons rarely swerve
From Law, however stern, which tends their strength to nerve.
Blow! swiftly blow, thou keel-compelling gale!
Till the broad sun withdraws his lessening ray;
Then must the pennant-bearer slacken sail,
That lagging barks may make their lazy way.
Ah, grievance sore! and listless dull delay,
To waste on sluggish hulks the sweetest breeze!
What leagues are lost, before the dawn of day,
Thus loitering pensive on the willing seas,
The flapping sail haul'd down to halt for logs like these!
Through Calpe's straits survey the steepy shore;
Europe and Afric on each other gaze!
Lands of the dark-ey'd Maid and dusky Moor,
Alike beheld beneath pale Hecate's blaze:
How softly on the Spanish shore she plays,
Disclosing rock, and slope, and forest brown,
Distinct though darkening with her waning phase;
But Mauritania's giant shadows frown,
From mountain cliff to coast descending sombre down.
To sit on rocks — to muse o'er flood and fell—
To slowly trace the forest's shady scene,
Where things that own not Man's dominion dwell,
And mortal foot hath ne'er or rarely been;
To climb the trackless mountain all unseen,
With the wild flock that never needs a fold;
Alone o'er steeps and foaming falls to lean;
This is not solitude; 'tis but to hold
Converse with Nature's charms, and view her stores unroll'd.
But midst the crowd, the hum, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel, and to possess,
And roam along, the world's tir'd denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endued,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less,
Of all that flatter'd, follow'd, sought, and sued;
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!
Pass we the long unvarying course, the track
Oft trod, that never leaves a trace behind;
Pass we the calm, the gale, the change, the tack,
And each well known caprice of wave and wind;
Pass we the joys and sorrows sailors find,
Coop'd in their winged sea-girt citadel;
The foul, the fair, the contrary, the kind,
As breezes rise and fall and billows swell,
Till on some jocund morn — lo, land! and all is well. — p. 74.
We are then informed, that the island of Goza was once the abode of Calypso; that it possesses a safe harbour; but that it is still as dangerous as ever to tender hearted travellers, being the residence of a certain fascinating female, called Florence, whose attractions, even Childe Harold, steeled as he was against the charms of beauty and coquetry, was scarcely able to resist. He proceeds however, on his voyage, passes the barren island of Ithaca, comes in sight of the Leucadian promontory, indulges in some melancholy musings on the death of Sappho, — and disembarking on the coast of the Morea, continues his pilgrimage by land to Yanina, the capital of Albania and of all modern Greece, and residence of the celebrated Ahi Pacha. The magnificence of the surrounding landscape is thus described:
Monastic Zitza! from thy shady brow,
Thou small, but favour'd spot of holy ground!
Where'er we gaze, around, above, below,
What rainbow tints, what magic charms are found!
Rock, river, forest, mountain, all abound,
And bluest skies that harmonize the whole:
Beneath, the distant torrent's rushing sound
Tells where the volum'd cataract doth roll
Between those hanging rocks, that shock yet please the soul.
Amidst the grove that crowns yon tufted hill,
Which, were it not for many a mountain nigh
Rising in lofty ranks, and loftier still,
Might well itself be deemed of dignity,
The Convent's white walls glisten fair on high:
Here dwells the caloyer, nor rude is he,
Nor niggard of his cheer; the passer by
Is welcome still; nor heedless will he flee
From hence, if he delight kind Nature's sheen to see.
Here in the sultriest season let him rest,
Fresh is the green beneath those aged trees;
Here winds of gentlest wing will fan his breast,
From Heaven itself he may inhale the breeze:
The plain is far beneath — oh! let him seize
Pure pleasure while he can; the scorching ray
Here pierceth not, impregnate with disease:
Then let his length the loitering pilgrim lay,
And gaze, untir'd, the morn — the noon — the eve away. — p. 85.
Ali was at this time engaged in a military expedition at some distance from his capital; a circumstance which afforded Childe Harold an opportunity of contemplating the diversified scenery of a camp, occupied by a mixed soldiery of Albanians. Turks and Tartars, and by a still more various multitude of attendants on the army; and at the same time, of beholding the terrible chieftain whose friendship is courted by the most powerful sovereigns of christendom, and whose influence awes the councils of the Ottoman empire. The mild and venerable countenance, and courteous demeanour of this aged warrior, are represented (and we believe with great truth) as concealing a character disgraced by the excess of lust, avarice, and cruelty, yet calculated to secure the affections as well as the obedience of the wild mountaineers whom he commands, by intrepid courage, considerable military skill, and consummate policy. His headquarters being at this time at Tepaleni, his favourite and splendid country-residence, Childe Harold's curiosity was here gratified, by a sight of all the magnificent baubles, with which the eastern potentates are encompassed in their solitary retirement; but he is soon disgusted with the contemplation of a mode of life chequered only by the alternations of harassing fatigue and monotonous insipidity; and again sets off, to explore the wild mountains of Albania, and to examine the manners of its untutored inhabitants. Their valour, their independent spirit, and love of their country, were well known to him by common report; but these virtues were said to be accompanied by a gloomy and undiscriminatiug ferocity. An accident, however, during one of his excursions, having thrown him into their power, he found amongst them shelter and protection, and the kindest hospitality. He partakes of their humble fare; is guarded by their unbought vigilance; and during a journey which would not only have been hazardous, but even unpracticable, without their assistance, is amused by the spectacle of their favourite pastime, the Pyrrhic dance; which it seems still survives amongst these martial tribes, and still animates them to a repetition of those enterprizes, of which it exhibits the representation. A translated specimen of one of the choral songs which usually accompany this dance, is introduced into this part of the poem, and we here lose sight of Childe Harold; the remainder of the canto being occupied, partly by reflections on the present degraded state of Greece, and partly by a melancholy retrospect of the domestic calamities, which have deprived the author of those, whose affectionate greetings, after his return from his travels, he had most fondly anticipated. From the former class we select the following stanzas, with which we shall close our extracts.
Fair Greece! sad relic of departed worth!
Immortal, though no more; though fallen, great!
Who now shall lead thy scatter'd children forth,
And long accustom'd bondage uncreate?
Not such thy sons who whilome did await,
The helpless warriors of a willing doom,
In bleak Thermopylae's sepulchral strait—
Oh! who that gallant spirit shall resume,
Leap from Eurotas' banks, and call thee from the tomb?
Spirit of Freedom! when on Phyle's brow
Thou sat'st with Thrasybulus and his train,
Couldst thou forebode the dismal hour which now
Dims the green beauties of thine Attic plain?
Not thirty tyrants now enforce the chain,
But every carle can lord it o'er thy land;
Nor rise thy sons, but idly rail in vain,
Trembling beneath the scourge of Turkish hand,
From birth till death enslav'd; in word, in deed, unmann'd.
Hereditary Bondsmen! know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
By their right arms the conquest must be wrought?
Will Gaul or Muscovite redress ye? no!
True, they may lay your proud despoilers low,
But not for you will Freedom's altars flame.
Shades of the Helots! triumph o'er your foe!
Greece! change thy lords, thy state is still the same;
Thy glorious day is o'er, but not thine years of shame.
When riseth Lacedemon's hardihood,
When Thebes Epaminondas rears again,
When Athens' children are with hearts endued,
When Grecian mothers shall give birth to men,
Then may'st thou be restor'd; but not till then.
A thousand years scarce serve to form a state;
An hour may lay it in the dust: and when
Can man its shatter'd splendour renovate,
Recal its virtues back, and vanquish Time and Fate?
Yet are thy skies as blue, thy crags as wild,
Sweet are thy groves, and verdant are thy fields,
Thine olive ripe as when Minerva smil'd,
And still his honied wealth Hymettus yields;
There the blithe bee his fragrant fortress builds,
The free-born wanderer of thy mountain air;
Apollo still thy long, long summer gilds,
Still in his beam Mendeli's marbles glare:
Art, Glory, Freedom fails, but Nature still is fair. — p. 104.
The foregoing sketch, slight and imperfect as it is, may serve as an introduction to a few general observations on the nature of this work, which we are desirous of submitting to our readers, before we proceed to a minute and particular comment on the sentiments, or language, or versification.
We believe that few books are so extensively read and admired as those which contain the narratives of intelligent travellers. Indeed, the greater part of every community are confined, either by necessity or indolence, to a very narrow space on the globe, and are naturally eager to contemplate, in description at least, that endless variety of new and curious objects which a visit to distant countries and climates is known to furnish, and of which only a very limited portion can be accessible to the most enterprising individual. If, then, this species of information be so attractive when conveyed in prose, and sometimes, it must be confessed, in very dull prose, by what accident has it happened that no English poet before Lord Byron has thought fit to employ his talents on a subject so obviously well suited to their display? This inadvertence, if such it be, is the more extraordinary, because the supposed dearth of epic subjects has been, during many years, the only apparent impediment to the almost infinite multiplication of epic poems. If it be supposed that the followers of the muse have not carelessly overlooked, but intentionally rejected the materials offered by a traveller's journal as too anomalous to be employed in a regular and grand composition, we answer that Homer was of a different opinion, and that the Odyssey is formed of exactly such materials. It is true that of the two great epic poems which Homer has bequeathed to the world, the Iliad is generally preferred as the noblest monument of his genius; but it does not follow that the Iliad is therefore the properest model for imitation; because the modern poet does not possess the privilege of conferring sublimity on the squabbles of two rival chiefs, or on the exploits performed during a siege, by calling in the habitual intervention of Heaven; — whereas the magnificent scenery of the Odyssey still remains and must ever remain at his disposal.
We do not know whether Lord Byron ever had it in contemplation to write an epic poem; but we conceive that the subject, which he selected, is perfectly suited to such a purpose; that the foundation which he has laid is sufficiently solid, and his materials sufficiently ample for the most magnificent superstructure; but we doubt whether his plan be well conceived, and we are by no means disposed to applaud, in every instance, the selection of his ornaments.
Of the plan indeed we are unable to speak with perfect confidence, because it has not been at all developed in the two cantos which are now given to the public; but it appears to us that the "Childe Harold," whom we suppose, in consequence of the author's positive assurance, to be a mere creature of the imagination, is so far from effecting the object for which he is introduced, and "giving some connection to the piece," that he only tends to embarrass and obscure it. We are told, however, that "friends, on whose opinions Lord Byron sets a high value," have suggested to him that he might be "suspected" of having sketched in his hero a portrait of real life; a suspicion for which, he says, "in some very trivial particulars there — might be grounds; but in the main points I hope none whatever." Now if he was so anxious to repel a suspicion which had occurred to friends, on whom he set a high value; if he was conscious that the imaginary traveller, whom, from an unwillingness to appear as the hero of his own tale, he had substituted for himself, was so unamiable; we are at a loss to guess at his motives for choosing such a representative. If, for the completion of some design which has not yet appeared, but which is to be effected in the sequel of the poem, it was necessary to unite, in the person of the pilgrim, the eager curiosity of youth with the fastidiousness of a sated libertine, why revert to the rude and simple ages of chivalry in search of a character which can only exist in an age of vicious refinement? Again, if this apparent absurdity was unavoidable; if the "Childe," and "the little page," and the "staunch yeoman," whom the Childe addresses in his farewell to his native land, could not be spared, why is this, group of antiques sent on a journey through Portugal and Spain, during the interval between the convention of Cintra and the battle of Talavera?
It may perhaps be said that this anachronism, being convenient, is in some measure pardonable; and that the other inconsistencies which we have pointed out do not, after all, detract much from the general effect of the poem. But we answer that such inconsistencies appear to us to be perfectly needless; that they may be easily removed; and that they are by no means innocent if they have led Lord Byron (as we suspect) to adopt that motley mixture of obsolete and modern phraseology by which the ease and elegance of his verses are often injured, and to degrade the character of his work by the insertion of some passages which will probably give offence to a considerable portion of his readers.
The metre adopted throughout this "Romaunt" is the stanza of Spencer; and we admit that, for every ancient word employed by the modern poet, the authority of Spencer may be pleaded. But we think that to intersperse such words as ee, nice, feere, ne, losel, eld, &c. amidst the richest decorations of modern language, is to patch embroidery with rags. Even if these words had not been replaced by any substitutes, and if they were always correctly inserted, their uncouth appearance would be displeasing; but Lord Byron is not always correct in his use of them. For instance, when he says, (Canto I. st. 67.)
Devices quaint, and Frolics ever new,
Tread on each other's kibes,—
it must be supposed that he did not mean to personify devices and frolics for the purpose of afflicting them with chilblains. When, again, in describing All Pacha, he censures (C. II. st. 62.)
—those ne'er forgotten acts of ruth
Beseeming all men ill, but most the man
In years, that mark him with a tyger's tooth, &c.
it is plain that the noble lord must have considered "ruth" as synonymous, not with pity, but with cruelty. In a third instance where we are told that "Childe Harold had a mother," the equivocal meaning of the first word has evidently a ludicrous effect, which could not have escaped the attention of our author whilst writing in the language of his own day. On such errors as these, however, which obviously originate, not in any want of genius, but in accidental heedlessness, we do not mean to lay any stress; we complain only of the habitual negligence, of the frequent laxity of expression — of the feeble or dissonant rhymes which almost always disfigure a too close imitation of the language of our early poets, and of which we think that the work before us offers too many examples.
Spencer, it must be observed, is always consistent. He lived at a time when pedantry was the prevailing fault, not of the sedentary and studious, but of the flighty and illiterate; when daily attempts were made to introduce into our vocabulary the mangled elements of the more sonorous languages of Greece and Rome; and when this anomalous jargon was hailed, by many of his contemporaries, as a model of melody and refinement. Anxious to preserve the purity and simplicity of his native tongue, the "well of English undefiled," he appealed from the vitiated taste of the court to the good sense of the nation at large: he thought that significant words were not degraded by passing through the lips of the vulgar; his principal aim was to be generally intelligible: he formed his style on the homely models which had been bequeathed to him by preceding writers, and trusted to his own genius for the supply of the necessary embellishments. The extent of that genius is displayed in the extraordinary variety and elegance of the decorations, thus composed from the most common materials. Spencer was in England, as La Fontaine in France, the creators of that style which our neighbours have so aptly denominated "le genre naif." The flowers which he scatters over his subject are, indeed, all of native growth: and they have a life and fragrance which is not always found in those more gaudy exotics, imported by succeeding poets, with which our language has been enriched and perhaps overloaded. Hence, though it is easy to catch his manner in short and partial imitations, it is almost impossible to preserve, throughout a long poem, his peculiar exuberance united with his characteristic simplicity. Lord Byron has shewn himself, in some passages, a tolerably successful copyist; but we like him much better in those where he forgets or disdains to copy; and where, without sacrificing the sweetness and variety of pause by which Spencer's stanza is advantageously distinguished from the heroic couplet, he employs a pomp of diction suited to the splendour of the objects which he describes. We rejoice when, dismissing from his memory the wretched scraps of a musty glossary, he exhibits to its, in natural and appropriate language, the rich scenery and golden sunshine of countries which are the
Boast of the aged, lesson of the young;
Which sages venerate, and bards adore,
As Pallas and the Muse unveil their awful lore.
But we have not yet exhausted our complaints against the wayward hero of the poem, whose character, we think, is most capriciously and uselessly degraded. The moral code of chivalry was not, we admit, quite pure and spotless; but its laxity in some points was redeemed by the noble spirit of gallantry which it inspired; a gallantry which courted personal danger in the defence of the sovereign, because he is the fountain of honour; of women because they are often lovely and always helpless; and of the priesthood because they are at once disarmed and sanctified by their profession. Now Childe Harold, if not absolutely craven and recreant, is at least a mortal enemy to all martial exertions, a scoffer at the fair sex, and apparently disposed to consider, all religions as different modes of superstition.
The reflections which occur to him, when he surveys the preparations for the conflicts between the French and the allied armies, are that these hosts
Are met (as if at home they could not die)
To feed the crow on Talavera's plain.—
There shall they rot; ambition's honours' fools!
"Yes, honour decks the turf that wraps their clay!"
Vain sophistry! in these behold the tools,
The broken tools that tyrants cast away, &c.
Enough of battle's minions! — let them play
Their game of lives, and barter breath for fame;
Fame, that will scarce reanimate their clay,
Though thousands fill to deck some single name.
In sooth, 'twere sad to thwart their noble aim,
Who strike, blest hirelings! for their country's good,
And die, that living might have proved her shame. — St. 41, 42, 44.
— he would not delight
(Born beneath some remote inglorious star)
In themes of bloody fray, or gallant fight,
But loath'd the bravo's trade, and laughed at martial wight." — C. ii. St. 39.
Now surely, it was not worth while to conjure a "Childe Harold" out of some old tapestry, and to bring him into the field of Talavera, for the purpose of indulging in such meditations as these. It is undoubtedly true that the cannon and the musketry must often anticipate the stroke of time; and carry off, in the vigour of life, many who might have been reserved at home to a long protracted decay. It is moreover true that the buried will rot; that the unburied may become food for crows, and consequently, that the man who has bartered life for fame has no chance, when once killed, of coming to life again. But these truths, we apprehend, are so generally admitted that it is needless to inculcate them. It is certainly untrue that fame is of little value. It is something to be honoured by those whom we love. It is something to the soldier when he returns to the arms of a mother, a wife, or a sister, to see in their eyes the tears of exultation mixing with those of affection, and of pious gratitude to heaven for his safety. These joys of a triumph, it may be said, are mere illusions; but for the sake of such illusions is life chiefly worth having. When we read the preceding sarcasms on the "bravo's trade," we are induced to ask, not without some anxiety and alarm, whether such are indeed the opinions which a British peer entertains of a British army.
The second feature in Childe Harold's character, which was introduced, we presume, for the purpose of giving to it an air of originality, renders it, if not quite unnatural, at least very unpoetical. Of this indeed the author seems to have been aware; but instead of correcting what was harsh and exaggerated in his sketch of the woman hater, he has only had recourse to the expedient of introducing, under various pretexts, those delineations of female beauty which a young poet may be naturally supposed to pen with much complacency. This we think ill judged. The victim of violent and unrequited passion, whether crushed into the sullenness of apathy, or irritated into habitual moroseness, may become, in the hands of an able poet, very generally and deeply interesting; the human heart is certainly disposed to beat in unison with the struggles of strong and concentrated feeling; but the boyish libertine whose imagination is chilled by his sated apetites, whose frightful gloom is only the result of disappointed selfishness; and "whose kiss had been pollution," cannot surely be expected to excite any tender sympathy, and can only be viewed with unmixed disgust. Some softening of such a character would become necessary even if it were distinguished by peculiar acuteness of remark, or by dazzling flashes of wit. But there is not much wit in designating women as "wanton things," or as "lovely harmless things," or in describing English women as "Remoter females famed for sickening prate;" nor is there much acuteness in the observation that
—Pomp and power alone are woman's care,
And where these are, light Eros finds a fere;
Maidens, like moths, are ever caught by glare,
And Mammon wins his way where seraphs might despair.
We utterly dislike the polyglot line compounded of Greek, Saxon, and modern English; and do not much admire the confusion of images in the others; but we wish to abstain from minute criticism, and are only anxious to remonstrate against those blemishes which, in our opinion, detract from the general beauty of the poem.
Having already given our reasons for thinking that the perversity of character attributed to the hero of the piece is far too highly coloured, it is needless to comment on that settled despair,
That will not look beyond the tomb,
But cannot hope for rest before. — (p. 52.)
This is the consummation of human misery; and if it had been the author's principal object, in delineating this fictitious personage, to hold him up to his young readers as a dreadful example of early profligacy, such a finishing to the picture might be vindicated as consistent and useful. In that case, however, it would have been doubly essential to divest the "Childe" of his chivalrous title and attributes; and the attention of the poet and of the reader being engrossed by one dismal object, it would have become necessary, to sacrifice a large portion of that elegance and animation by which the present work is confessedly distinguished.
We certainly do not suspect Lord Byron of having made a pilgrimage to mount Parnassus for the sole purpose of wooing the muses to assist him in the project of reforming his contemporaries; but as we are, on the other hand, most unwilling to impute to him the intention of giving offence to any class of his readers, we much wish that he had assigned to his imaginary Harold, instead of uttering as his own, the sentiments contained in the following stanzas.
Even gods must yield — religions take their turn:
'Twas Jove's — 'tis Mahomet's — and other creeds
Will rise with other years, till man shall learn
Vainly his incense soars, his victim bleeds;
Poor child of Doubt and Death, whose hope is built on reeds.
Bound to the earth, he lifts his eye to heaven—
Is't not enough, unhappy thing! to know
Thou art? Is this a boon so kindly given,
That being, thou would'st be again, and go,
Thou know'st not, reck'st not to what region, so
On earth no more, but mingled with the skies?
Still wilt thou dream on future joy and woe?
Regard and weigh yon dust before it flies:
That little urn saith more than thousand homilies.
Or burst the vanish'd Hero's lofty mound;
Far on the solitary shore he sleeps:
He fell, and falling nations mourn'd around;
But now not one of saddening thousands weeps,
Nor warlike worshipper his vigil keeps
Where demi-gods appear'd, as records tell.
Remove yon skull from out the scatter'd heaps:
Is that a temple where a God may dwell?
Why ev'n the worm at last disdains her shatter'd cell!
Look on its broken arch, its ruin'd wall,
Its chambers desolate, and portals foul:
Yes, this was once Ambition's airy hall,
The dome of Thought, the palace of the Soul:
Behold through each lack-lustre, eyeless hole,
The gay recess of Wisdom and of Wit
And Passion's host, that never brook'd control:
Can all, saint, sage, or sophist ever writ,
People this lonely tower, this tenement refit?
Well didst thou speak, Athena's wisest son!
"All that we know is, nothing can be known."
Why should we shrink from what we cannot shun?
Each hath its pang, but feeble sufferers groan
With brain-born dreams of evil all their own.
Pursue what Chance or Fate proclaimeth best;
Peace waits us on the shores of Acheron:
There no forc'd banquet claims the sated guest,
But Silence spreads the couch of ever welcome rest.
The common courtesy of society has, we think, very justly proscribed the intrusive introduction of such topics as these into conversation; and as no reader probably will open Childe Harold with the view of inquiring into the religious tenets of the author, or of endeavouriug to settle his on, we cannot but disapprove, in point of taste, these protracted meditations, as well as the disgusting objects by which some of them are suggested. We object to them, also, because they have the effect of producing some little traces of resemblance between the author and the hero of the piece; a resemblance which Lord Byron has most sedulously and properly disclaimed in his preface.
It will now be proper to take a slight survey of the remaining contents of this volume.
On the subject of the notes, which are always lively and amusing, and sometimes convey much curious information, we should have had no comments to make, if Lord Byron had not occasionally amused himself with provoking controversy, and, in one instance at least, without any very legitimate reason.
He was, indeed, bound to state the grounds on which lie had thought it necessary, in his poem, to designate Lord Elgin as "the last, the worst dull spoiler" of Athens; as a man whom Scotland must blush to own; as a "modern Pict," — "cold as the crags upon his native coast, his mind as barren and his heart as hard;" — but we doubt whether the plea adduced by the poet would be admitted in any sober and impartial court of justice, as a complete excuse for so much invective. This allegation in the note amounts to this: — that whilst the Consul of France has been endeavouring to obtain from the Turkish government their permission to seize and send to Paris the most valuable remnants of antiquity which still remained at Athens, our ambassador at Constantinople had contrived, by means of a more active agent, to get possession of the said antiquities, and to ship them to England; and that the same agent, in executing his commission, has "wantonly and uselessly defaced a whole range of basso-relievos in one compartment of the temple" which he was suffered to pillage. Supposing this statement to be correct, the Athenians have, undoubtedly, good reason to complain; and if Lord Byron, indignantly keeling his share in the degradation of the national character consequent upon such acts of outrage, had contented himself with producing his charge; with proving that the immediate instrument of the mischief had acted under the authority of a British ambassador, and with arguing against such an abuse of the influence derived from this high situation; we should have thought his spirit and his eloquence well employed. But it surely is not quite fair to begin by executing a supposed delinquent, and then to put him upon his defence. We can forgive, in a young and ardent traveller, the bitter expression of disappointed curiosity; but Lord Byron, as a traveller and a scholar, may, perhaps, derive some advantage from the spirit of depredation of which he so feelingly complains. He has printed in his Appendix an extract from Meletius, containing a transcript of the Hellenic inscription, &c. on the marbles found at Orchomemius; now we are informed that the marble containing this inscription is at present in England; and that, by a reference to the original, Lord Byron may easily satisfy himself that the copy given by Meletius in his Geography is full of inaccuracies.
In the note inserted at p. 143, Lord Byron has certainly replied, with great liberality and decorum, to a set of critics, who, in their censures of his earlier works, had not set him the example of extreme urbanity; but the instance of unprovoked pugnacity to which we allude is exhibited in pp. 146 and 147, where he denies to Mr. Thornton any "claims to public confidence from a fourteen years' residence at Pera;" assuring its that "this can give him no more insight into the real state of Greece and her inhabitants than as many years spent at Wapping into that of the western Highlanders." But, in the first place, if Lord Byron be right, Mr. Thornton cannot be wholly wrong; for, on comparing their respective opinions, it will be found that, in all essential points, they very nearly coincide. Secondly, as Constantinople and its immediate vicinity may furnish about one hundred thousand specimens of Greeks of different ranks and conditions, whilst Wapping cannot be supposed to offer very numerous samples of western Highlanders, we cannot consider the noble lord's illustration as very apposite. Thirdly, as Lord Byron admits, (pp. 159, 160,) that the best account of Turkish manners is Mr. "Thornton's English," it is not very probable that so accurate an observer of character, in instances where the means of observation were comparatively rare, should have been totally blind to the manners of a people with whom, during fourteen years, he must have been in habits of daily intercourse. Whilst we feel ourselves indebted to Lord Byron for the light which he has thrown on the character and manners of the Albanians, we are sorry that, in criticizing an intelligent and, apparently, accurate writer, he should condescend, more than once, to employ a tone of sarcasm which nearly borders on coarseness and vulgarity.
The notes are followed by a series of small lyric pieces, fourteen in number, some of which (and particularly the last) we should have been glad to transcribe, but that we are conscious of having already exhausted, and, perhaps, abused, the privilege of quotation.
Of the Appendix, which consists of various specimens of the Romaic, we need only say, that we consider it as a valuable supplement to this entertaining "Pilgrimage." National songs, and popular works of amusement, throw no small light on the manners of a people; they are materials which most travellers have within their reach, but which they almost always disdain to collect. Lord Byron has shewn a better taste; and it is to be hoped that his example will, in future, be generally followed.
It is now time to take leave — we hope not a long leave — of Childe Harold's migrations; but we are unwilling to conclude our article without repeating our thanks to the author for the amusement which he has afforded us. The applause which he has received has been very general, and, in our opinion, well deserved. We think that the poem exhibits some marks of carelessness, many of caprice, but many also of sterling genius. On the latter we have forborne to expatiate, because we apprehend that our readers are quite as well qualified as ourselves to estimate the merits of pleasing versification, of lively conception, and of accurate expression. Of those errors of carelessness from which few poems are, in the first instance, wholly exempt, we have not attempted to form a catalogue, because they can scarcely fail to be discovered by the author, and may be silently corrected in a future edition. But it was our duty attentively to search for, and honestly to point out the faults arising from caprice, or from a disregard of general opinion; because it is a too common, though a very mischievous prejudice, to suppose that genius and eccentricity are usual and natural companions; and that, to discourage extravagance is to check the growth of excellence. Lord Byron has shewn that his confidence in his own powers is not to be subdued by illiberal and unmerited censure; and we are sure that it will not be diminished by our animadversions: we are not sure that we should have better consulted his future fame, or our own character for candour, if we had expressed our sense of his talents in terms of more unqualified panegyric.